Last week, I got to spend seven hours trying out PlayStation 5’s new Access Controller at a press event that took place in London, and I have a LOT of complicated thoughts about how it compares to the other major accessibility controllers available in the console space.
My name is Laura Kate Dale, I’m also known online as LauraKBuzz. I am a gamer with a coordination disability which is slowly getting worse with time, and as such I’m someone who currently uses accessibility controllers intermittently, and is invested in developments in the space as my use of non-standard controllers is only likely to increase over time.
The PS5 Access Controller has been on my radar for a while now, as it seemed from its initial reveal to be taking a very different approach to both the Xbox Adaptive Controller and the Hori Flex for Nintendo Switch.
The accessibility controllers currently available on Xbox and Switch are both primarily designed to be hubs into which third party 3.5mm buttons, switches, and joysticks can be connected rather than necessarily being stand alone controllers of their own out of the box.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller ships with large A and B buttons, and a D-Pad, but no other inputs as default. The Hori Flex contains all the main buttons from a Switch controller, missing only analogue sticks and motion controls, but these buttons are smaller than those on the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
For both, at minimum, players will need to invest in their own external analogue sticks to use these accessibility controllers alone for modern 3D games.
The PS5 Access Controller on the other hand, at least if purchased as a pair, aims to be its own controller solution out of the box. A pair of Access controllers comes with two customisable analogue sticks, and enough customisable buttons to replicate every input on a Dualsense Controller, with some caveats we’ll get to shortly. The controller is clearly intended to be its own accessibility controller, rather being than a hub for external inputs, made perhaps most clear by the design decision to only include four 3.5mm ports on each Access Controller, for a total of eight ports on a pair of Access Controllers in comparison to the 20 or so ports on its hub style competitors.
Getting to see the PS5 Access Controller in person, the first thing I was struck by was how much smaller it was in reality than it appeared to be in image renders. Images of the controller in a blank void don’t really convey the fact that each Access Controller was sized comparably to a wide, circular mouse. I could rest my hand in the centre, with all five fingers resting on different buttons, and the back of my palm pretty well positioned to press an additional input without moving from where my fingers were comfortably resting. The controller’s dome shape was also less pronounced than I expected from images, comfortably fitting under the centre of my palm. This size and shape difference very much changed my initial perception of the controller, and made a lot more sense of how I might position my hands on the controller when in use.
At each demo station at the event one Access Controller was already set up and connected to the PS5, with a second still in its box available to unbox and customise.
The unboxing experience for the PS5 Access Controller will feel pretty familiar to anyone who’s unboxed an Xbox Adaptive Controller, and is praiseworthy for many of the same core reasons.
While the initial sticker had already been removed from the box, I have been assured that it features two large loops which are easy to grip, and allow the sticker to be easily removed from either end of the packaging.
Beyond the sticker, the box easily folds open without needing to lift a lid off. No components inside the box feature stickers or cable ties fastening them shut, and any element that needs lifting features a cardboard loop to grip. Everything is available on a single layer, making unboxing pretty simple in my experience. There were no obvious accessibility barriers, which was a huge plus.
Beyond the basic controller, the box contains a USB-C cable, two alternative analogue stick tops, a large number of alternative shaped button caps, and a series of rubber icons to mark button functions.
One thing I’d like to pause here and note, while this controller was originally referred to in messaging by PlayStation as the PS5 Access Controller, the box itself and all messaging at last week’s event simply referred to it as the Access Controller. This minor distinction is important because one of my concerns initially was that the name might indicate this controller only being compatible with the current console generation, and not a device that PlayStation plans to support long term, potentially into next gen.
While Senior Technical Program Manager Alvin Daniel would not outright confirm or deny whether the Access Controller would be supported into a future generation of PlayStation consoles, he did suggest during a group interview that PlayStation now has an accessibility controller, and anticipates the company taking on board feedback and working on future accessible hardware revisions.
I do feel like, at the very least, this controller not carrying forward to a potential PlayStation 6 is less of a concern than I had initially worried it might be.
In terms of setup, by connecting an Access Controller to the PS5 via USB-C, you get an initial setup wizard which walks you through configuring the controller. You can connect up to two Access Controllers to the PS5 at once, alongside a DualSense, though I was unable to test if you could simultaneously use Assist Controller Mode on PS5 to go above that number with potentially a second Dualsense in the mix, or not.
The setup wizard initially asks you to select the orientation of your controller, with the analogue stick placed at any of the four primary compass directions determining which direction is up on the stick. I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t select one of the intermediate diagonal orientations, as my hands felt more comfortable at rest in those positions, but over time in testing I found I could tilt the controller to one of those diagonals, and allow my muscle memory to adjust for the variation in where up would register on the stick.
After that the setup wizard walks you through setting the function each button will have when in game. The available options include all standard button inputs on a controller, as well as slightly more uncommon inputs such as clicking the DualSense touchpad as a button.
There are a couple of interesting options available in this setup wizard that I genuinely hope become system level button mapping features on PS5 for DualSense users, and not just Access Controller users. You can set one button press to activate two button inputs, which when paired with a double width controller button can allow essentially four inputs to be registered simultaneously by one physical button press on the Access Controller. Additionally, you can set a button on the Access Controller to function as an input toggle, meaning that games with mandatory button holds that a player might find difficult can be interacted with by pressing to toggle that hold on or off at the controller level, an accessibility feature that PlayStation really should offer to DualSense users too, and not just Access Controller users.
One nice thing about this setup wizard is that, while customising your controls, a separate unchanging control scheme shown in the bottom right of the screen is utilised, reducing the risk of confusion if you remap a button that you’re also using in the remapping process.
Each Access Controller can store three setup profiles at any one time, which are transferable from one console to another, with a great many more profiles able to be stored on the PS5 console itself. These profiles can be cycled between with the press of a button near the analogue stick, and a short button hold can be used to quickly jump back to the controller configuration wizard at any time
In terms of physical customisation, each button on the Access Controller is held in place by a small magnet, and can be removed from the device by pressing a small, low resistance button on the side to release a latch, with the exception of the double width button cap which is held on purely by the pair of magnets. These magnets help guide each button cap into place, with a press of the button providing a click to confirm they’re locked into position. Each features a hole for a small rubber icon to be placed to show what that button’s mapped to, with a small handful of oval blanks provided which are useful if you plan to map two inputs to the same physical button, and still want to label that button’s function.
In practice, once I found a control scheme that worked for me, I generally used the same controller layout for most games that I played, going in and making minor changes to that same single profile on a game by game basis where needed. I would occasionally find a game where a very different control scheme was preferable, such as setting up a profile specific to Street Fighter 6 that placed light, medium, and heavy attacks in a sensible order, but beyond that the main use I found for profile switching in initial tests was as a way to create one handed control schemes for certain games, switching profiles to change my stick between left and right analogue functionality intermittently.
For me, the control scheme that ultimately made sense was to use one Access Controller with my right hand, with the Cross, Square, Triangle, and Circle buttons laid out in a clockwise order at the top of the device, and the lower buttons removed from the controller entierly, to more comfortably rest my hand. The other controller I primarily used to control my left analogue stick, with the L and R buttons mapped in positions that I could reach with my fingers or palm while still holding the analogue stick. That setup took me some time to find, and won’t work for everyone. Heck, after 7 hours I’m still unsure if it’s the best setup for me – I wanted to keep experimenting.
The Access Controller doesn’t give you any suggested guidance on how to set it up, and you will spend a chunk of time at the start of any new game hopping in and out of the configuration wizard moving buttons about depending on which buttons are most commonly or rarely used by that specific game, but the process of making those changes was pretty seamless. Nobody told me I could take unneeded button caps off the bottom half of the controller, they were only keycaps and didn’t change how the controller functioned, but it felt more natural for me. That unguided experimentation is part of the initial process.
Digging into my play experience a little deeper, there was a little bit of a learning curve to using this new controller, but not nearly as lengthy a curve as I expected. While my initial races in Gran Turismo 7 went laughably bad, I slowly improved, moving onto third person platformers like Sackboy’s Big Adventure, found the controller incredibly intuitive for use playing Street Fighter 6, and took very little adaptation later in the day to start playing third person adventures like Horizon: Forbidden West, The Last of Us Part 2, and God of War: Ragnarok.
While I was personally pretty impressed with the PS5 Access Controller in my specific use case, I spent a lot of my time at the London preview event, if I’m honest, focused on things about the controller I think are missteps. They’re not going to impact everyone, but for some use cases they are going to be a deal breaker.
The PS5 Access Controller has been in development since 2018, the same year the Xbox Adaptive Controller was launched. I had hoped to be able to say that, with five years of development perspective, PlayStation would be releasing an accessibility controller which was objectively a step forward when compared to its primary competitor. Instead, I believe it’s a step sideways. It’s going to be better for some users, and undeniably worse for others, for reasons that from the outside at times feel like stubbornness, or difference for the sake of differentiation.
Let’s start by talking about its core design as a controller rather than an input hub. While it’s undeniably going to be a positive for some users that they can pick up an Access Controller, and have everything that they need for their setup available out of the box without shopping for third party peripherals and considering cable management, I don’t believe that having the Access Controller ship as a complete controller solution necessitated also only shipping with a limited number of 3.5mm ports. It’s a choice that needlessly limits how this controller can be used, and it’s the main reason that the Access Controller isn’t an objectively better option across the board than the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Speaking to other attendees at the event, I spoke with one gamer who found the Access Controller buttons too stiff to comfortably press. They can’t simply use the Access Controller as a hub for their existing low resistance switches, because the number of ports available is limited. The same goes for another person I spoke to, whose primary use case for accessibility controllers is spreading all of their inputs further apart. This is hampered by the limited number of input ports available.
I think perhaps the most telling thing about the event, from an accessibility perspective, was that PlayStation did not make any external buttons or switches available at all for players to plug into their Access Controllers as part of the preview event. If you didn’t think to bring your own external switches from home, you were not going to be able to factor those into your impressions. That kind of omission feels deliberate, they want you to use this controller the way they imagined it being used, even if that means limiting your ability to customise your setup more drastically if that’s what you personally need.
I’m obviously making judgments from the outside here, but I honestly believe that the only drawbacks to providing more 3.5mm ports on these devices would have been a small impact on size and price. The choice to not do that means that, if you’re someone who needs a lot of external inputs in your setup, I can’t recommend a PS5 and Access Controller over an Xbox and Adaptive Controller in that kind of use case.
If the Access Controller isn’t a good fit for you out of the box, you necessarilly can’t use it as a comprehensive hub to create a setup that does suit you.
Additionally, it feels important to note that all of the buttons on the PS5 Access Controller are digital buttons, with no options for analogue input. This means that for games where degrees of analogue trigger input are required, if you can’t hold a DualSense and use its triggers, you are going to need to use two of those limited number of 3.5mm ports to add external analogue inputs.
This sort of leads me onto the other area where I was honestly a bit disappointed during my time at the Access Controller preview event, which was some of the ways that aspects of DualSense controller inaccessibility have been seemingly handwaved away as inacessible, rather than overcome.
The PS5 Dualsense controller has a few unique aspects of how players can use it to interact with games. Players can use motion controls to interact with games, as well as touch pad gestures for in-game interactions. These, alongside the previously mentioned analogue trigger inputs, were referred to by Senior Technical Program Manager Alvin Daniel during an interview as “inherently inaccessible”, and aspects of the DualSense that the team didn’t want to try and factor into the Access Controller’s design.
While I recognise that motion in particular is an input method which would be very difficult to incorporate into this type of controller, it feels like there are things which could have been done, and could still be done in future, to not just disregard these aspects of DualSense input as inherently inacessible and not part of what the Access Controller can accomodate.
Could PlayStation perhaps allow players to map an analogue stick to act like an analogue trigger? Or perhaps program generic “swipe up / down / left / right” touch pad emulated inputs that a button could be mapped to? It feels like there are answers to how some of these inputs on a DualSense that are inaccessible could be made accessible to players who cannot hold a DualSense, and it’s disappointing that it feels like these challenges were disregarded as not being solvable problems.
This also extends to things slightly outside of the Access Controller itself. It’s great that the Access Controller can be used in multiple orientations, and have its own button mapping separate from other connected controllers. I asked Alvin Daniel if that same functionality might eventually be expanded to allow players who use two DualSense controllers in one setup to reorient and separately map each of those two DualSense controllers.
His answer was no.
“The Dualsense is designed to be held one way, like this” he said.
These kinds of things, while seemingly minor, ultimately add up to paint a picture of how PlayStation at some levels has created boundaries and limits for customisable accessibility hardware. They want their accessibility controller to work without needing external devices, and as such they don’t give you enough ports to use it as a hub if you’d find that setup preferable or necessary. They have decided that a Dualsense only has one orientation, so they’re not going to let you reorient it in their Co-Pilot mode equivalent. There are strange areas where it feels like corporate decisions are placing limits on what accessibility on PlayStation is allowed to look like, holding them back from keeping pace with some of Xbox’s innovations in the space.
The thing is, all those concerns and limits put briefly aside, it was really nice to play around with a wireless accessibility controller solution that didn’t need me to set up any cabled external buttons, and which I could customise once and then just sort of have ready. They’re compact, their setup is movable without needing to rearrange, and for me they are genuinely exciting. For my use case, they’re a wonderfully plug and play option I’m really excited for.
The PS5 Access Controller adds a really interesting new accessibility solution to the game industry, but one that’s striking a different direction, one that needlessly prevents itself from being THE overall best recommendation on console.
I had minimal trouble creating custom one handed controller setups for a variety of simple games, and on more complex titles I found workarounds to play them one handed. I appreciate the thicker width buttons making palm pressing by touch accurately more manageable as I position my fingers on buttons and thumb on a stick. I found a good two handed solution on my first day, and quickly adapted to playing complex games with ease, despite resetting my muscle memory. There’s a lot about these controllers that I love, but it keeps coming back to the fact that I wish it supported robust hub usage.
Maybe down the line PlayStation could release a variant of this with more ports, or an alternative device that’s just a hub with no buttons at. If so, I think PlayStation might be able to reach the point where their accessible hardware option is a true step forward for the industry. I hope we see that, or something similar, even if it feels counter intuative right now to where the messaging on the Access Controller wants us to focus.
The Access Controller is what it is. It’s great for me, but if it’s not a good fit for you, your options to customise your accessibility setup are going to be constrained compared to the options available on Xbox or Nintendo Switch.